The meaning and purpose of food

Alex Klaushofer
7 min readApr 28, 2024
From Sainsbury’s ‘Future of Food’ report

What does food mean to you?

Now I know that some people are very interested in food, while others are less interested. At one end of the spectrum are those for whom the creation and appreciation of food is a life purpose, the chefs and the cooks, the restaurant critics and the food writers. At the other end of the scale are those who seem not to enjoy eating and profess to consider the consumption of food as a boring necessity. Sitting on the foodie end of the middle ground, I struggle to understand this group as I’ve only ever, briefly, been uninterested in food when ill or recently bereaved. And although around the world, meals and the customs around them vary enormously, there is no culture on earth that does not value food.

Whatever the meaning of food, its purpose — successful breatharians excepted — is undeniable. Food is the building block of life and health. Food is not just part of the human experience, it’s the condition for it.

And yet it seems that food has become controversial. Farming is a ‘problem’ and should be reduced or abolished. Eating preferences have become a matter of morality and people need to be educated into making the correct choices.

The farmers protests that have been going on in various European countries for the past two years –barely covered in the mainstream media — are a symptom of this. Recently, with British farming under threat, tractors finally reached Westminster. Almost half the country’s fruit and veg producers fear they will go out of businesses within the next year, according to this research, and the government is actively encouraging farmers to stop farming with pay-offs of up to £100 000.

It is all most baffling. How is it that advanced societies have become so confused about food? Of all the things we humans have known how to do during our time on this planet, it is surely how to eat, and our survival is proof of our resourcefulness in finding food in the most difficult conditions. Yet these days it seems that how and what we feed ourselves is suddenly up for question in a manner that has never happened before.

What is going on?

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To get a better handle on the nature of this confusion, let’s take a look at the two ends of the spectrum of food production.

The first is the local and small, the human-scale and down-to-earth. This is the food grown in back gardens and on window sills, on allotments and community projects. This form of food production is both a traditional aspect of life in Western society and part of a counter-culture that has emerged in response to an increasingly industrialised agricultural system producing processed food sold by big corporations.

At the other end of the spectrum is a vision of a high-tech ‘solution’ to the problem of human nutrition, one that involves using technology to create new food stuffs. While this model of food production grows out of Big Ag, it has ambitions that extend far further, to the development of a new approach which changes our relationship to food at a fundamental level. A report by Sainsbury’s published in 2022 exemplifies its aspirations.

The ‘Future of Food’ report by the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s envisions how the average person will get their food in 2025, 2050 and 2169 through a series of imaginary case studies. In 2025, eco-health student Julia is cooking a celebratory meal for her family. Determined to overcome her dad’s preference for steak, she prepares an vegan meal out of seaweed and vegetables, the latter grown at Sainsbury’s in-store hydroponic shelves. Everything is ordered and paid for by app; all Julia has to do is pick them up her shopping, presumably by scanning herself through digital barriers, but the report doesn’t mention this). Julia’s dinner party is part of ‘ecological public health’, explains Sainsbury’s Head of Quality and Innovation, one which involves getting ‘beyond meat and fish’ and developing alternative proteins such as algae and insects. Sainsbury’s, she adds, was ‘the first UK supermarket to introduce snack-packs of insects through the brand, Eat Grub’.

By 2050, Julia has her own business producing ‘environmentally friendly proteins’ where meat is grown in a vat and ‘assembled’ via 3D technology. Customers, which include her local councillor, are welcome to come to the plant and watch their dinner being printed out.

Perhaps at this point you’re feeling a sense of unease. I know I am. Sainsbury’s has long held a special place in my heart. Some of my earliest memories are of accompanying my mother on the weekly trip to the orange store where aisles of crisps and sweets offered both familiarity and excitement. The mere sight of the brightly-coloured packaging would make me forget the promise not to ask for treats, and an argument would ensue. A few years later, I was impressed by the brio with which my mother regularly asked to speak to the manager (imagine Mrs Beeton crossed with an Amazon). The resulting conversation usually concerned what should be in stock and was a sign of the good relationship between the store and a regular customer.

My mother was on the ‘foodie’ end of the food interest spectrum, cooking two meals a day from scratch. She and my father grew most of the family’s fruit and veg in the garden, storing the produce for year-round consumption in chest freezers. Milk was delivered daily and eggs brought to the door by the farmer’s wife. The weekly Sainsbury’s shop co-existed quite comfortably with a local, natural way of sourcing food. Trusting and conventional, my mother readily supplemented her cuisine with convenience foods. She had no idea how powerful Big Food was to become.

Decades later, despite my disenchantment with Sainsbury’s prices and packaging, I couldn’t quite kick the habit of an occasional visit to my local store where I often ran into people I knew. The staff were long-standing and on friendly terms with their customers and the air around the long row of checkouts rang with happy chatter. At a time when supermarket shopping was becoming more and more impersonal, my local Sainsbury’s was an exception.

One day in early 2020, a curious silence reigned inside the store. Half the checkouts had been removed and replaced with self-service points. Some of the staff were standing around, disconnected from their usual posts and roles, and their faces wore rattled, almost scared expressions. They’d been told they would still have jobs, one told me, but their roles would consist of helping customers ‘on the floor’.

It wasn’t true, of course: the last time I went to my local Sainsbury’s the two remaining checkouts were closed, a red band drawn firmly across the place where customers stood. A single harried-looking woman was running between the self-service points helping people in difficulty. There was no chatter: all the customers were focused firmly on the task of inputing data into the screens in front of them. I put down my shopping basket and left.

Returning to Britain after two years away, I was shocked to see how automated supermarkets had become. The change was accompanied by levels of surveillance I had never expected to see in everyday life, with close-up cameras filming customers’ every move as they scanned their ‘items’. In smaller stores in central London, complicated queuing systems corralled people into lanes while uniformed men in black looked on. The process of buying groceries had become a high-security operation resembling that of an airport (post-9/11).

There are many reasons to object to this — the job losses, the lack of social contact, the way it gives corporations unprecedented new levels of information about our spending, preferences and location. But the main problem for me comes in the form of a vaguer feeling that there’s something fundamentally anti-human about this way of meeting our basic needs.

And then there’s another thought lurking at the back of my mind. It lives with a memory of how the supermarkets were in 2020 and 2021, the zeal with which they covered the floors with stickers about staying away from other humans and played continual announcements about danger. I can’t quite forget that in some Western countries ‘the unvaccinated’ were banned from everywhere except grocery stores: what if the next step had been taken? Even now, supermarkets are introducing more requirements for shopping: ‘membership’ schemes for better prices and barrier gates that only open if you scan your receipt. What if one day a condition for food shopping were introduced that you couldn’t or really didn’t want to meet?

What I’m getting round to saying is that we — the people — have a problem. The opposition between the automated, global food supply system and one which allows for the human, the local and the natural is becoming ever-starker. It’s increasingly difficult to experience them as two, complementary ways of sourcing food because, once you start to look at the bigger picture, it looks as if a kind of take-over is in progress, one in which Big Food is attempting to squeeze out the competition by any means it can. Supermarkets are at the heart of this struggle. But to get a real sense of what it’s about, we need to broaden our scope.

This is an extract from a longer essay. You can find the full-length version on Substack at Ways of Seeing.

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